A week in Moscow

I haven’t been writing too much on this blog, as I’ve been focusing on developing content for my new blog, The 58th Floor. I’ve replicated my ‘week in Moscow’ post below – without most of the pictures. If you want to see it with all of my photos, head on over to The 58th Floor and have a read 🙂

Matt is doing well, getting through his training and visiting all sorts of places. He has a pretty light load at the moment. He is off to Florida at 3am on Thursday, and I’ll hopefully be accompanying him… dependent on seat availability. It’s looking a little tight at the moment, so we will see! I’m off to have a late birthday dinner tonight with friends. 

I feel like Russia is on the ‘too hard’ list for a lot of people. You need a visa, and when most people think of Moscow, I’m sure they think of Stalinist apartment blocks – and not a lot more. Yes, there are definitely big, ugly apartment blocks. But there are also green public parks, hundreds of statues, beautiful buildings and so much history. A trip to Moscow is highly recommended.

I was fortunate to stay with friends, which helped keep my costs down. It also meant I was able to explore a lot of the city with some very helpful guides – my friend Sapphire and baby Alexandra. However, Moscow wasn’t as hard to get around as I imagined. I spent the first few days relaxing and spending time with Sapphire, and then it was on to full tourist mode. I saw so many sights in just a few days – you could easily do a three-day trip to Moscow and see the sights. I’ll write about what I did first, and then propose a three-day itinerary at the end of my post.

The first few days I spent in Moscow were spent exploring the area around the Arbat and Ostozhenka. When I got to Moscow, I was bewildered to see huge numbers of police around. Was there some danger that I wasn’t aware of? No. Apparently, thousands of Orthodox had descended on Moscow to see the rib bone of Saint Nicholas. Yes, a four-inch rib piece of the Saint who inspired the original Santa Claus was inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. It is the first time to relic had left Italy, and symbolises an important step forward between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The police were making sure that no one jumped the queue, given some people were waiting five or six hours for a glimpse. To be fair, the method of crowd control was actually pretty effective.

The Cathedral of Christ the Savior itself has an interesting story.  It was one of the first things I saw when I emerged from Kropotkinskaya metro station for the first time, with its onion domes glimmering in the sun. When I arrived at Sapphire’s apartment, I did a quick google to find out the history of the building. Opened in 2000. Hmmmm. Seen as a monument to the excesses of the ‘old regime’, the original cathedral – the site of the début of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture in 1882 – was turned to rubble by the Soviets in 1931. In its place, Stalin decreed that the colossal Palace of the Soviets would be built, a plan that never came to fruition. Instead, the former cathedral was turned into the worlds largest outdoor swimming pool. Lovely. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a new cathedral was built from 1995-2000, and in 2000 it was the site of the canonization of the last Russian royal family as passion bearers. Being very interested in Romanov history, I would have loved to look inside, but wasn’t too keen on the wait time. I’m hoping Santa has moved on before my next visit.

The Old Arbat is a beautiful pedestrian street in central Moscow. Dotted with little museums, tourist shops and eateries, the road is the route of the French military invasion of Moscow in 1812, written about in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The buildings are beautiful. I’m a sucker for Neo-Byzantine Russian architecture, those brightly colored stucco buildings popular during the reign of Alexander II. The Old Arbat also featured some very cool street art, and some interesting babushkas hawking wares. It led us to our next metro stop – Arbatskaya – which was something else altogether.

The Moscow Metro is incredible. If you want to kill half a day for less than 3AED, just ride around the Koltseveya Line – the brown, circular one – and gawk at the stations. Legend has it, the circular line originated when a metro plan was brought to Stalin, without any plan for a brown line. After sipping coffee from a large cup, he placed it on the blueprints, the cup leaving a brown ring on top of the metro lines. The engineers, upon consideration, found it to be a good idea. Cool story bro. I’m pretty sure that isn’t true, and even if it was, I’m guessing the engineers would be too scared to reprimand Stalin for his messy coffee drinking. Regardless, the brown line hosts many of the most beautiful metro stations, with the other lines featuring more economical design features.

Early in my trip, we took the metro out to Victory Park. Located on Poklonnaya Hill, Victory Park is built on the spot where Napoleon waited in vain for the keys to the Kremlin to be bought to him. He obviously never got them. It is now a memorial to the ‘Great Patriotic War’ – World War Two – and is home to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. A key feature of the park is an obelisk erected in 1990, 141.8m tall, 10cms for each day of World War Two. Seriously, that thing is huge.

The museum was only 25AED to enter, so I thought I would take a look. I was pleasantly surprised at how much of the features were labelled in English. The museum is built around a massive central Hall of Glory, that lists the names of over 11,000 Heroes of the Soviet Union, and hero cities. Underneath the Hall of Glory, the Hall of Remembrance and Sorrow lies, a monument to the 26 million people who died or went missing during World War Two. The hall has thousands of little tear drops hanging from the ceiling, to symbolise the tears shed for the Russian’s lost countrymen. The museum was nearly deserted when I visited, and while it didn’t look particularly big from the outside, I realised how massive it was once I was standing in the stark Hall of Commanders inside. Outside, you can also see an eternal flame, and Victory Park hosts – among other things – an Orthodox Cathedral, various war memorials and a Holocaust memorial. It also has many ice cream vendors, if you are feeling so inclined.

Sapphire and I walked down to Red Square on Tuesday morning, which was only about a twenty-minute walk. I was so excited. To get to approach Red Square and the Kremlin on foot is pretty epic, particularly when you see the Kremlin towers emerging from the landscape. Sapphire helped me buy my tickets for the Kremlin and led me to the entrance, and after a half an hour, I was in the Kremlin grounds. My first stop was the Armoury, two floors of jewels, carriages and clothing relating to Russia’s rulers. My favorites were the Faberge eggs and Catherine the Great’s dresses. It was fun to compare her wedding dress – which was tiny – to the dresses she wore in later life. Being Empress of Russia is probably a good excuse for stress eating. I also visited the Diamond Fund, which is the Russian equivalent to the crown jewels. They were very pretty, but without any English information, I had no idea what I was looking at. The jewels looked like some whoppers, though.

I then wandered through some of the cathedrals on the Kremlin site. There are seven churches/cathedrals/bell towers that dot the site. The Cathedral of the Archangel contains the tombs of 46 Tsars, those who died before the Russian capital was moved to Saint Petersburg, and the Cathedral of the Assumption was the site where Russian Tsars were crowned. I had been to Russian Orthodox Cathedrals before, and they are quite different inside – the interior full of icons and pictures of Saints. They were also surprisingly little, but I’m guessing access to the Kremlin was pretty well locked down in Tsarist times. I then wandered through the gates to Red Square, where I was met with the best view.

There aren’t that many times when you wander somewhere, and its exactly like you imagined it to be. I knew Red Square was always teeming with tourists, so I was prepared for it to be busy. But to see Saint Basils Cathedral was pretty amazing. It looks like something out of Disneyland, which is bizarre given it was built from 1555 – 1561. While it is gorgeous from the outside, the inside is pretty lacklustre. It is full of tiny corridors leading to nine chapels, which are really just random rooms. You have to wander up a flight of steep but short stairs to the second level, and it feels very small. You get some fantastic views of Red Square, but I’d give it a miss if I was going back.

By this stage, I was getting hungry, so I wandered over to GUM to grab some lunch. Originally the home to the State Department Store during the Soviet Era, it is now (ironically) full of high-end designer stores, and tourists eating ice cream while wandering round. I went up to the top floor to Stolovaya No. 57, a canteen style restaurant where I got a utilitarian lunch for 19AED. Sapphire and I had visited My-My, a similar canteen style restaurant, a few days earlier, and it was great. We may have gone to another later in my trip. They won’t win any awards for fine cuisine, but you can pretty much just point at what you want with a spasiba. My Russian is pretty limited, and while I knew the word for thank you, I also knew the word for hippopotamus – begemot. I didn’t want to get those two mixed up.

By this time, I’d missed my chance at visiting Lenin – he shuts up shop at 1PM. Instead, I went for a bit of a wander before meeting up with Sapphire and taking Alexandra to the Hermitage Gardens. Created in 1894 to host a screening of the Lumiere brothers’ first film in 1896, it offered us a chance to sit down for a bit and enjoy the sunshine. After an epic bus ride that turned to to be heading in the right direction – hooray! – we were home again.

The next day, I got up early to go and see Lenin, but unfortunately, I was slowed down by the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Alexander Gardens. By the time I got to the line at around 9.45am, it was teeming with people. However, by 10.45, I was in. You basically only get about 30 seconds to view Lenin – looking rather small and a bit pale after all these years – before being shuffled back out into the sunlight. However, out the back of the tomb you can view parts of the Kremlin Necropolis. Stalin is buried here, and the ashes of Yuri Gagarin are entombed in the Kremlin Wall. Stalin’s grave is obvious – look for the big old Stalin head right after you leave Lenin’s tomb – but if you want to see Yuri, look for the plaque that reads Гага́рин – looks a bit like RARAPNH.

We unfortunately missed getting tickets to the Bolshoi theatre tour – which seemed to have sold out a long time before I arrived to line up – but found an amazing art shop in the Central Children’s Store on Lubyanka. Apparently, there is a great viewing platform on top of it, a fact we found out after we had left. The area, ironically, is best known for its association with the KGB, who still work in the nearby Lubyanka building. Probably not a place you really want to end up on your trip to Moscow.

In the afternoon, I took the metro out to the Museum of Cosmonautics. Like from Kroptokinskaya, I emerged from the metro to see the 107 metre Monument to the Conquerers of Space, which is pretty impressive. I loved the museum itself, even though the amount of artifacts labelled in English were limited. It had mock ups of MIR, the ISS and Soyuz capsules and various satellites, plus lots of information on the Space Race. One of the weirder exhibits were the stuffed dogs, Belka and Strelka, who were the first dogs to go to space and tell the tale. Their earlier cosmo-dog buddy, Laika, unfortunately overheated very quickly during her flight and died from stress – she didn’t live half as long as the Soviets earlier claimed. I imagine she probably wasn’t in much of a state to be stuffed and mounted after that traumatic ordeal.

I caught the metro back towards the apartment, visiting Gorky Park on the banks of the Moskva River. It was much prettier than I expected. Admittedly, all I knew about Gorky Park was that there was a novel and film written about it, where some kids are killed ice skating. The movie wasn’t even filmed in Moscow. I’d expected it to be pretty grim, but it was bustling with people, boats, and more ice cream sellers. Apart from a random man who tried to hand me his pet bird for a photo (!), it was a nice walk. Also, have you ever been to a karaoke bar, and seen those videos with Russian girls grooving along to music in nondescript locations? Yeah, I’m pretty sure they were filming some of those videos in Gorky Park.

The next day was a relaxed one. We had a delicious brunch at Voronezh, after which we visited Charlie at work. We had tried to buy plain bread rolls at a local monastery, but instead ended up with giant loaves of cinnamon and poppy seed bread. Oops, we tried. We then went for a bit of a wander over the bridge to the Muzeon Park of Arts, after browsing the art stalls along the riverside. The park is basically a dumping ground for all the Soviet statues removed from around the city, and if you’ve ever wanted to see a multitude of Lenins in one place, this park is for you. There is also a noseless Stalin, and a creepy bunny with nipples. I’m not sure that the bunny has much to do with Soviet times, but you can’t miss it. You can also get a great view from the park of the Monument to Peter the Great – a massive column with a ship perched atop in the river. Apparently, his eyes look pretty interesting up close.

Finally, we wandered back to the apartment, taking a detour through Bolotnaya Square and viewing more creepy statues. Seriously Moscow, some of these things are messed up. This one was called ‘Children are the Victims of Adult Vices‘, and its as weird as you would expect. Possibly weirder. I’m not particularly sure why the prostitution statue has a frog head. Perhaps it is better that I don’t know. We ended our walk with an amazing view of Red Square whilst crossing the Borovitskaya Bridge. By this stage, I was well and truly pooped. It was a week well spent.

Moscow really does have a lot to offer. If you aren’t interested in history, you might find it a bit repetitive, but you can still appreciate the beautiful architecture and green areas. The temperature at the moment offers a welcome respite from Dubai’s heat. If you would like a visit, I’d recommend the following three-day itinerary.

DAY ONE:

Book online for the Kremlin (the Armoury and grounds), any time after 11.15am. At about 9.30am, go and line up for Lenin. After visiting Lenin, go to the Armoury and visit the Kremlin grounds. Have a late lunch in GUM, admire Saint Basils Cathedral and wander the streets of the Kitai-Gorod. Eat dinner at one of the many restaurants around ul. Kuznetskiy Most.

DAY TWO:

Have breakfast, and then head out to the Cosmonautics Museum. After visiting the museum, wander through the surrounding park, and visit the VDNKh exhibition centre nearby for more space era artifacts. Catch the metro to Victory Park. Grab something to eat in the surrounding area, and visit the Museum to the Great Patriotic War. Head on the metro to Gorky Park, and grab an ice cream or drink while wandering the grounds.

DAY THREE:

Visit the Muzeon Statue Park, and try to get tickets to a tour or performance at the Bolshoi Theatre (or any other of Moscow’s many theaters). If you speak Russian, visit the State Historical Museum, or if you are interested in art, you can visit the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. Marvel at the cost of goods at TSUM, mingle in the Alexander gardens, or visit the Cathedral of Christ the Savior – providing Santa has departed. You can also visit Sparrow Hills for a great view of the city.

And make sure you have at least one meal at My-My. Come on. Give it a go.


Stay: I stayed with Friends, but anything central and near a metro stop is recommended. If you can spring for it, somewhere near Red Square is recommended, at least for one night. Think of that view.

Eat: Supermarkets are commonplace, and you can pick up snacks there. Voronezh and Miles Cafe are recommended in Ostozhenka – Voronezh does a well priced brunch menu, and Miles a mean burger. Visit My-Myand Stolovaya No. 57 for a (semi) authentic Soviet experience – they are really cheap, and have heaps of variety. My-My does a great borscht!

Visit: Of the places you need to buy tickets for – The Kremlin. Cosmonautics Museum. The Bolshoi Theatre.

See: Gorky Park. Hermitage Gardens. Muzeon Statue Park. Red Square. Lubyanka Square. Cosmonauts Park.

Transport. Use the metro as much as you can. If you buy a blue card, trips come down to 30 roubles each. It is very cost effective, and you can marvel at the pretty stations. Most taxi drivers don’t speak English. Be aware that Moscow is a city of roadworks, and you’ll have to saunter down some pretty narrow alleyways set up to allow work to continue.

Tips:

The Moscow metro is easy to get around, but I’d recommend taking a screenshot of the Russian name (Cyrillic characters) of your destination to make sure you know where to get off. Some of the metro lines also announce the station names in Russian. It also doesn’t have many stations that are easy to cart your suitcase around, so I’d recommend an airport transfer, unless you have light bags.

When you go to Kremlin, you will be allocated the next available time slot. This meant that I had to visit the Armoury and the Diamond Fund between 10-11.30. If you would rather book consecutive slots, you can book your tickets online. The Kremlin grounds ticket lasts all day. Don’t take anything bigger than a handbag (30×30 or so) or you will have to check it in for the day.

Everyone must register upon entering Russia. If you are booked in a hotel, they will usually do this for you. They will probably give you registration documents – hold on to these, as you will need to keep them during your stay. If you travel as a private guest – as I did – you must register yourself, although Charlie helpfully did this for me. It did mean my passport was in absentia for a few days.

The Russians I encountered were generally very helpful and friendly. I felt safer in Moscow than in London or New York. As long as you act as if you would in any other major city – keep an eye on your handbag – you are fine. If you were to get approached by Police for any strange reason and are concerned, contact your local embassy.

Advertisements

Москвá!

IMG_4350

I have arrived in Moscow! I nearly didn’t make it. DXB was chaotic on Friday. I arrived super early, but it still took me an hour or so to get through staff travel. Every flight attendant on their day off was wanting to travel back to Eastern Europe. Luckily, everyone managed to get on the flight, and I had the one spare seat on the plane next to me in business! I think it was actually broken – the little screen to move the seat wasn’t working – but it didn’t matter, so I moved to it so I could be on the aisle. The flight was uneventful (although it looked rather uncomfortable for the poor Russian man on the other side of the aisle who was clearly terrified of flying).

After a minor hiccup where my phone didn’t work at all at Domodedovo airport, I managed to find Sapphire and Alexandra. Because I was up the pointy end of the plane, I got through immigration and baggage control in about 10 minutes – apparently a world record. I found a place to buy a sim card with data and got hold of Sapphire – and we ventured back to Moscow on the train.

IMG_4406

Moscow is massive. It took us about an hour and a half to get back to the city, with a giant suitcase and baby in tow. We caught the express airport train – which was actually a pretty good service – and then took two metro lines. I learnt quickly that the Moscow metro hasn’t been modernized! There are a few escalators but no lifts. Sapphire is a tough nut, and carried the pram up numerous flights of stairs. Every time I struggled with my bag, some burly Russian bloke came and carried it up for me. My favorite was the guy who carried it up one flight, walked around the corner, saw another flight, waited for me and laughed when he saw me coming – but he still carried it up! They might not be super “friendly” here in Moscow, but they try their best to be helpful.

The language barrier is interesting. It reminds me how incredibly easy we have it in Dubai. Most people here do not speak English. On Saturday we walked to the farmers market to buy fruit and vegetables. We managed to get everything we needed, Sapphire diligently asking and pointing, but it was an interesting experience. We went supermarket shopping and I could barely recognize most of the foods. A lady sounded like she was grumbling at us at the markets, but she was actually saying ‘have a nice day’. They just have a gruff demeanor!

IMG_4132

The apartment is in a nice area of Moscow. On the way to Red Square, there is a beautiful big old cathedral called the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Well, I thought it was old. It was rebuilt in 2000. The rebuilt cathedral was the site of the canonization of the last Romanovs as passion bearers, which was very controversial – the issue being that they shouldn’t be considered martyrs, as they hadn’t necessarily been killed for their faith. The original cathedral was torn down to create what was going to be the Palace of the Soviets, proposed to be the largest building in the world at the time. It was instead turned into the world’s largest outdoor swimming pool.

I’ve got a few interesting days planned out, but its nice just to go outside and wander around. It’s a crisp 14 degrees today, so I’ll probably pull my coat out. I’m going to go to the Kremlin and Red Square later in the week, to the Bolshoi theatre for a tour, to the old building of the department store GUM, to the Cosmonaut Museum and we might take Alex to Moscow Zoo. Alex is as cool as a cucumber – she sleeps through the rickety old metro rides and whilst being bumped up and down curbs – Moscow is a bit like Dubai, but instead of being built, its being rebuilt. She is coming along on all our adventures and seems to be having fun.

Adventure time!


We returned from two days in Ajman this afternoon. Neither of us have been feeling too fabulous, but we made the best of it. We stayed at the Ajman Saray – which was lovely, although I wouldn’t exactly rate Ajman as an exciting destination! We basically spent our days relaxing in our room and next to the pool, catching up on reading and writing blog posts and articles. It was rather hot – around 40 degrees, but felt like 50. I have returned home looking remarkably lobster like. 

We got a fantastic couples massage last night, which was very cheap for the UAE – about $60NZD each. My poor masseuse had obviously been fasting – I was worried she would hear my stomach rumbling, but hers sounded like a thunderstorm. We also had fun admiring the fashion choices of the many Russian guests at the resort. Animal print is definitely in this season, and they have no shame in wearing the smallest possible swimsuits. Yikes.

Speaking of Russia, I’m hopefully off to Moscow tomorrow morning. I say hopefully as tomorrow is the start of a long holiday weekend here in the UAE, with Eid al-Fitr likely to start soon. Of course, we don’t know exactly when it will be, we need to wait for that pesky moon. Regardless, a lot of people are apparently going to travel this weekend. Fingers crossed I get a seat on the flight. Then, provided Matt’s roster doesn’t change, I’ll be meeting him in Hamburg on the 30th of June, ready to celebrate my 30th birthday on the 1st of July. We will then depart Hamburg that night, and hopefully the staff travel gods will shine on us, getting us through to Mauritius on the 2nd of July.


Matt has been enjoying his trips, and all seems to be going well. He is off to Johannesburg tomorrow, and will probably do the done pilot thing – buying cheap plonk and meat to bring home! Next month, he has trips to the Maldives, Phuket, Florida and India. I’m hoping to be able to tag along to Florida and the Maldives – will see how we get on!

Internet access might be a little sparse in Russia, so don’t freak out if you experience a bit of radio silence! I’ve loaded up a few posts to be published at my new blog – The 58th Floor – if you are interested. A little review of our time in Ajman will go up tomorrow. 

On home

I was thinking of home tonight, so I decided I would google promotional videos of Wellington. I’ve seen so many Dubai promotion videos since I’ve been here… I think I’ve nearly memorized the one they screen before the plane lands. I wondered how Wellington would be portrayed. Somehow, I ended up viewing this old chestnut.

Ah, the Absolutely, Positively Wellington video. Apparently it was released in 1991, but given I was four then and probably wouldn’t remember much, I feel it ran for a good many years after it. There are so many things in the video that have met their demise. Len Southward. The Akatarawa Shop. The animals featured. Ansett. Ironically, the Mount Victoria Bowling Club still looks exactly the same – except when it is hosting the Unholy Masquerade, of course. I do think including the (now dilapidated) Kapiti cheese is pushing the boundaries of Wellington, but times were obviously tough in 1991, and Wellington needed the lucrative tourist pull of a giant piece of cheese. I am sure there are many childhood photos of me hanging out on that cheese, an ironic twist considering my now dairy-free diet.

Being homesick is strange. I miss weird things. I keep thinking about how much I miss running around Oriental Bay. If you have been to Oriental Bay, you will know why. It is beautiful. My runs often produced the following scenery:

Looking at those photos, of course you feel a bit homesick. What an amazing sight. I miss the luxury of being able to to walk outside at the moment, let alone run. But what I tend to forget is the 60km/h winds that haunt Wellington. The four degree mornings. The fact that I haven’t been for a run around Oriental Bay for over a year. In fact, its been a year since I moved out my flat, which I loved, on Wakefield Street. It was right in the city, one block away from the entertainment district, two minutes to the National Museum, five minutes to the water. It was fantastic. But it also cost $450 a week, and despite being built in 2012, was freezing cold in winter. It was also a little bit cave like, and very narrow. Looking back, its easy to remember all the good things about a place, particularly when things are hard in your “new life”. Rose tinted glasses crop up often.

After moving out of my apartment in the city, I stayed with Alana and Hayden in Churton Park (kitty-sitting!) for a bit before moving into my last flat, in Wadestown. I loved that place too. It was small, but in a great location, and had a garage for my little car. It was right next to Otari-Wiltons bush, was incredibly quiet, and it only took me 15 minutes to get to work on the bus. I remember sitting there numerous times over my last few months in New Zealand and wondering how on earth I could savor the experience of being in native bush, seeing Tui and Kokako outside and not living 50 stories in the air. I don’t think I really knew what I was in for, coming to Dubai.

IMG_7266
The view from my last flat in Wellington. A rare sunny day over the summer of 2016/2017.

I think it is easy to get hung up on being homesick. It is very difficult moving to a new place. We are lucky that we don’t really have to contend with the language barrier here, but basically, your whole life has been thrown upside down. For those of us that had careers and came to support out partners, we’ve been suddenly put out of a job, and often the purpose that comes from a job. I’ve come to accept a lot of things about my shift to Dubai now, but its taken me awhile. I have only recently felt in a good enough place to admit some of the things that I miss about home.

That I miss the people goes without saying. I’ve always been a bit of an introvert, so it’s not quite as drastic as you would think. I still keep up communications with many people – some of whom I chat with more than I did in New Zealand! But for work acquaintances, or people you didn’t see much, or extended family – its hard. You want to communicate with people, but its also quite tiring. You are trying to make new friends here too, and you somehow end up filling up your days, even if you aren’t sure quite what with.

There are the big things that I miss. Going outside. Walking places. The freedom of driving around, New Zealand drivers are nothing on Dubai drivers. The comfort of always being about twenty minutes from home, anywhere in Wellington. But its the little things that make a place feel like home. I miss the banter with Tommy, Taryn, Nic and Matt at work, Almond Hot Choc’s with Niki, Tea with Virginia, chats with Bob. Walks on the waterfront with Laura, visiting Alana and Hayden’s for a BBQ and to visit their awesome fat kitties. Drinks at Motel, the Library or C.G. Merchants. Dinners with Kelly and Amelia. Driving out to Paraparaumu. Brunch with Matt most Sundays, wherever we felt like driving. Weekend walks with mum, or even by myself up in the hills. Birds outside my window. I even miss the rain a little bit, sometimes.

And the food! Which is ironic, because Dubai has so much amazing food. But I had a solid rotation of lunchtime treats. Pork and chive dumplings at Dumpling’d. Roti wraps and kebabs at Satay Me. Cashew Chicken at Aroy. Shortbread and tea at Colonial Cafe. Honey soy noodles at Chef’s Palette. Chicken and almond sandwiches at Wishbone. These were all within a five minute radius. I’m pretty sure there was a month when I solely consisted on bagels from the Wholly Bagels in our building, when I was too busy to leave work during the day. When I went away to Dubai for five days last year, it closed down. Were my bagel purchases keeping the whole store afloat? Did it ever reopen?!

I can look at all the things that I miss with a feeling of appreciation now, rather than a sense of impending doom. They are things that I remember and think of fondly, rather than being the aspects that grind you down from a distance. I remember reading this post on the Residents of Wellington – a very cool blog, by the way – about whether the writer would ever want to leave Wellington. I think its an interesting perspective, but I certainly think living away from Wellington is the best thing you can do to appreciate it. There is no where in the world like it. But that is the point – there is a whole world out there to explore. If there is no where in the world like your home, doesn’t that make you want to explore the rest of the world… see what the fuss is about? Yes, sometimes its hard, or unpleasant, or downright disappointing. But it’s there to be explored. Picking your life up and shifting half way across the world isn’t for everyone, but it does certainly change your view on things.

While Wellington might not always exist in its current format – it is built on a major fault line, after all – New Zealand will always be home. It will always be there, waiting for us to return one day. And we will. Just not yet.

IMG_8461

* I wrote this blog post for my new blog, The 58th Floor, the link to which I’ll post in a few days. But I thought you guys might enjoy it too!

 

With the fishes

IMG_3774
Sea flap flap says hi. 

Things have sped along quite quickly since Matt and I went to China. He was on reserve for about five days after we got back, but was called up to go to Jakarta for a few days. It’s getting hotter here, and harder to go out during the day, though the night is still not too bad.

Ramadan started on the 26th of May, and we flew out to China the next day. The beginning of Ramadan is always confirmed very close to the actual start, as its based on the moon. There is a moon sighting committee responsible for signaling the start, which is announced with two cannon shots. Yes, seriously. Matt had warned us this was going to happen, but I still wasn’t quite sure he wasn’t kidding. Every night just after 7PM, a cannon shot is fired to signal the start of Iftar, when the fast is broken. If you are sitting anywhere near the windows of our lounge, you are very sure to hear it.

Ramadan here isn’t as difficult as I thought. In saying that, I imagine things are slightly different in other Emirates, or throughout the Gulf. I suspect Dubai is very liberal compared to others places. It is still a little… quiet though. Some food courts are open in the malls, and most hotels seem to have one food outlet open for lunch. The malls are incredibly quiet during the day. They don’t play music during Ramadan, and for obvious reasons, you can’t eat or drink. You can duck into a toilet cubicle and have a drink (obviously from your drink bottle, what were you thinking?!), but for obvious reasons, that doesn’t appeal too much. Some malls have little barriers or fenced off areas you can duck behind to eat or drink, but you can never find one when you need one. Which is ironic, given that Matt managed to find a restaurant serving pork and beer for lunch the other day. Dubai is a place of strange contrasts.

IMG_3676

I haven’t been to many of the Iftar feasts, because I’m not much of a buffet person. I can understand why people who have been fasting since sunrise might be a little hungrier, though. When Matt was in Jakarta, Bianca and I went to an Iftar at Tom and Serg. We had intended on going to Alserkal Avenue, which turned out to be a bit of a Ramadan fail on my part. I’d looked on the website, which said a few of the galleries were open, and the Iftar would start at 7.05PM. Unfortunately, it didn’t state that the galleries were all fairly far apart, or that the temperature would be 38 degrees at 6PM, and that no where to even sit would be available until 7.05PM. Oops. Even my cab driver seemed a bit bewildered at my choice of destination. Luckily, Bianca came and rescued me in her trusty Range Rover, blasting the air-con for my comfort. We had a drink at the Brunswick before driving to Tom and Serg. The theme was Ramen vs Roast, and Bianca, having been previously with her husband, sensibly chose the modest sized ramen meal. Mine was delicious as well, but slightly too plentiful. A giant plate of roast chicken, lamb, beef, roast potatoes, garlic, onion, and delicious yorkshire puddings. I arrived home afterwards very full.

IMG_3730
Atlantis the Palm, from the overpriced Monorail.

On Monday, Matt and I decided we would head out to the Palm. I’d never been there, although Matt went to the waterpark when we visited last October. It is a bit convoluted to get there without a car – we walked to the metro, took it to the marina, hopped on the tram and then onto the monorail. I’d somehow expected the view from the monorail to be a beautiful vista of the ocean over some low rise housing, but it actually travels through a bunch of high rises first… then half finished malls and apartment blocks. I’m glad I’ve been on it now, but I wouldn’t rush back! We headed over to Atlantis to visit the Lost Chambers Aquarium. It was very Dubai, more style than substance.

It was definitely worth visiting, don’t get me wrong. We got in for half price, the fish were super colorful, and while a few tanks were a bit small, the big ones were awesome. I liked the fact that you could sit and admire the fish in the quiet. But there wasn’t really any information about what you were looking at! Apart from a few screens that told you a bit about the fish from Finding Nemo, there wasn’t much other information. Ah well. It was a very nice and relaxing way to spend an hour or so. And it was air-conditioned. Always a bonus.

IMG_3813
We didn’t actually walk very far. But it felt like an arduous journey.

After visiting Atlantis, I asked if we could head over to the Palm Boardwalk so I could get a photo. Once we were there, I had the brilliant idea that we could walk to the Sofitel for lunch. It wasn’t that hot! And it was only 1.6kms! It might not have been hot, but by the time we got there (without being able to drink anything on the way), we discovered just how humid it was. Yikes. We must have looked a wee bit sad dragging ourselves through the hotel lobby, but luckily, they seemed to be used to sweaty, lost people. We had a nice lunch at Maui Beach (the website had claimed it had ‘Maori motifs’, but we didn’t see anything of the sort) and dried out, before getting a cab back to the Marina metro station, and heading to the Dubai Mall for a few hours.

IMG_3831
WAFI Mall. Its owned by Egyptians… who knew?

I’ve been planning to visit Charlie, Sapphire and Alexandra in Russia, and a few days ago I got my invitation number from Charlie to go to the Consulate in Dubai and apply for my visa from the 20th of June. Great! I logged on to the website to book and appointment. The first one available was on the 4th of July. Fantastic. After finally getting hold of the Consulate, they advised I use an agency to apply, so I booked an appointment on the 11th, hoping I would get the visa back by the 22nd. And then I thought, eh, you know what? I’m just going to show up. It was at WAFI mall, so at least it was easy to get to.

I wandered into the visa agency, and it was packed. There were people everywhere, and I joined the back of a very long line. After a few minutes, I asked the guy in front of me whether I was in the right line for Russian visas. Turned out, there was no line for Russian visas. I walked in, and had my application completed in 30 minutes. Record timing. I guess we will find out whether it was worthwhile if my approved visa wings its way back to me on the 18th, but it definitely seemed a lot easier than the Chinese Consulate. I didn’t even have to get a non-objection certificate, which was lucky, considering Matt was flying somewhere over the ocean to Adelaide. The relative success of my visit braced me for the 40 degree temperature outside… which wasn’t that bad, until you look at the ‘feels like’ temperature – 50 degrees. I’m pretty sure my shoes melted a little.

IMG_3625.JPG
Making new friends in the Design District.

About two weeks ago, Matt got an email that we were going to have our apartment fumigated. Great! We’d had a few bugs around the place and we were going to get it done anyway. We asked at the lobby desk when we would have it done, and were told the 7th. So, before Matt departed for Adelaide, we cleaned out all of our kitchen cupboards and packed away everything throughout the house, or in various suitcases stacked in the lounge.

By lunchtime yesterday, no one had showed up, so I went downstairs and asked. Sorry, that email was a mistake, and you shouldn’t have been told it was going to get done at all. It is only for cabin crew. I’m not sure why cabin crew are more susceptible to attracting bugs to their apartments (insert crude joke here), but apparently, pilots weren’t getting the fumigation done. Grand. I’ve spent the last two days surrounded by boxes of pots and ingredients, but luckily, have arranged for a fumigator to come on Saturday at our expense.

Ah, Dubai.

32 hours in Beijing

fullsizeoutput_c0c

Yes, to answer the million dollar question, I did make the flight to Beijing! This made the visa application process worthwhile. To explain why I was a bit frustrated with the visa process, I will outline it below.

We googled what time the Consulate opened in Dubai. It said 9.00am, but that people began lining up at 7am, sometimes earlier (one review stated 3am). It also said they only handed out 50 tickets a day. Given we only had one shot at getting the application in, we were there at 6.50. We couldn’t see anyone else waiting. The security guard was less than helpful, and told us no one ever lines up, and to come back at 8.30 for a ticket. We trudged about a kilometer to the nearest cafe, which wasn’t open, and hid in an air conditioned ATM outlet until it did, trying to cool down.

After breakfast, we head back at about 8am, to find a whole lot of people waiting outside in the sun. We were 21st in the line. Great. At least we weren’t 51st. We waited another 30 minutes, this time trying to hide from the sun. At 8.40, we were let inside. It turned out the man taking the list was actually applying for a passport. I have no idea who made him chief list maker for the day. We waited about an hour and a half for our turn, watching the staff bark at people for various reasons. We were called up. They wouldn’t accept copies of my photocopied expired passport and previous Chinese visas, so I had to write a declaration of all the countries I had visited on my old passport and hand it in. They said they would check the information we handed over – which included my passport, photocopies of Matt’s passport and ID, a salary certificate, a non-objection letter, my declaration, a photo, a filled in visa form, my ticket and an email from the hotel in China. We waited another hour and a half. Eventually, while I was about to lose my rag about the trip to the Chinese consulate that had turned into a five hour debacle, we had a pink slip thrust at us and was told to come back Thursday. VICTORY.

IMG_3250

The plane on the way over was packed, and I only got a seat about an hour before departure – we had wisely paid for business, given there wasn’t much room left in economy. It was a great flight up, and – despite nearly losing Matt at Beijing airport several times – I eventually made my way to the hotel. We got to bed around about 1am, with a 7am pick up the next morning.

I had booked a driver named ‘Mr Xie’ to take us to the Great Wall for the day. I didn’t fancy getting to Beijing and trying to negotiate with a cab driver who might abandon us at the wall, particularly given I predicted (correctly) that I wouldn’t get much sleep. In the lobby was a lady driver who definitely wasn’t Mr Xie. Ah well, welcome to China. She had a sign with the right name, and she managed to take us to the wall without any major incidents. It was about a two hour trip to Mutianyu, one of the nearest sections of the wall. The easiest section to get to – Badaling – is apparently the most popular spot for locals, so we opted for the less touristy option. Although our guide didn’t speak a word of English, through much pointing and gesticulating we managed to get tickets for the cable car up the hill, and set about hiking up the Great Wall.

IMG_1446
The gradient was certainly greater than expected.

 

It was steep, and hot. I’m not really sure what I expected, but I looked up at the hill and thought ‘I can make it all the way to that top tower!’. I did not make it all the way to the top tower. We are pretty used to 35 degree heat these days, but hiking up stone steps in 35 degrees is not the sort of activity we generally undertake in Dubai. I hadn’t eaten much that morning for fear of getting car sick – anyone that has been in a taxi in China will understand this concern. We both trudged our way up to the third highest guard tower – the one above the steepest section in the second photo – where we came to the common agreement that we wouldn’t go any higher. As I wobbled my way down, I felt this was a sensible move.

img_3266.jpg

Going down was obviously easier than going up, though not as easy as I expected. It was getting very hot by this stage, and I felt for the poor people making their way towards the top. In saying that, the Chinese seem to be a hardy bunch, and we saw people of all ages making the trek, including a bunch of determined little kids. I don’t think many people carried on beyond the watchtower that we made it to, though. After wandering the wall for another hour, we caught the cable car back down (grateful for buying a return ticket) and relaxed for awhile, before rejoining our guide at Subway (!) and driving back towards Beijing city.

IMG_3582
Tiananmen Square, Beijing.

Beijing is big. Our guide took us as close as she could to the Tiananmen Gate, where we went through some half-hearted Chinese security. The signage wasn’t entirely clear, and we didn’t have any idea of how far we were going to walk through the Forbidden City, our next point of call. For this reason, we only took a quick glimpse at Tiananmen Square, the site of the 1989 protests and Mao Zedong’s Tomb. Information on the protests is still heavily censored in China, so you would be very hard pressed to find any particular location or information on events relating to them. We wandered through the Tiananmen Gate – along with around 5000 local tourists – towards the Forbidden City.

IMG_3327
Chairman Mao keeping watch.

The fact that the name has ‘city’ in it was probably a strong hint. It was very big. I didn’t really prepare much for the visit, as I wasn’t even sure we would get admitted – tickets are supposedly limited, and we arrived at about 1.30pm. But we couldn’t figure out where to buy a ticket to the city. After we finally figured out the ‘Palace Museum’ was, in fact, the Forbidden City, we managed to obtain a ticket and headed on through… to gate, after gate, after gate. The Forbidden City was where the Chinese imperial family lived from 1420 to 1912. It seems a little excessive in size. It has over 8000 rooms, but we only got to see a few of them. Mostly, we spent a lot of time dodging Chinese people with umbrellas, as they (fairly enough!) avoided the sun. It was a cool place to visit – and neat to tick another UNESCO site off the list – but given the amount of travel we have done in China and Japan, the only really defining feature of the Forbidden City was its size and scale. In saying that, I’m still glad we went, and once I do a bit more research about what we actually saw, I imagine I’ll appreciate it more.

We kept following the crowd through the complex, not really sure where we were going. We came to a garden, which I thought meant we had exited the Palace Museum, but alas, we were still inside. It was packed. A kindly lady shuffled over so we could enjoy our cold drinks in the shade. We gathered up the energy to trundle on, having walked about 12kms by then…. with a lot of that straight up a hill. By this stage, we were getting rather hot, and judging by the gross bulging vein in my forehead in the photo below, I was pretty dehydrated. Time to exit the premises.

IMG_1495
Don’t let the smile fool you. I was hangry.

We finally made it out, only to find indecipherable instructions to the sightseeing bus, and not a taxi in sight. Well, that’s not true, there were plenty of taxis, but they were on the other side of a metal fence. We wandered about 1.5kms to a shopping plaza, me being a grumbly little monster along the way because we still hadn’t had lunch. Anyway, we located the plaza and a branch of Din Tai Fung, which had been recommended to us by the Captain on our flight. I love dumplings, and the food was delicious. We had soup dumplings like we ate when we visited Zhujiajiao, near Shanghai, in 2015. Ironically, there is a branch of the store about 15kms away, in the Mall of the Emirates. However, it was still nice to be able to sit down and enjoy (pork) dumplings in China.

IMG_3598
Oh how I’ve missed you, pork buns.

Afterwards, we wandered outside to get a cab. Easy, right? Not in Beijing! No one wanted to take us without ‘negotiating’ a fare first. Basically, they wanted to fleece us by not using the meter. After about 25 minutes of pacing aimlessly and trying to hail street cabs, we walked to the Hilton, told them we wanted to visit our friends back at our hotel, and they hailed us a cab, with the meter running. We even got a free dangerous driving course courtesy of the driver, and some singing lessons. I’m pretty sure living in Dubai has made me relatively immune to terrible drivers now. I feel like I’ve seen it all.

We were both pretty tired, so were in bed at 8pm for our 4am wake up call, to the airport at 5.15 and departed, on time, at 7.25 or so. Matt flew the sector back, and we had a very nice landing! All the flight attendants looked very horrified when they saw I was down the back in economy – but they kindly moved me to a row of three empty seats near the window, where I was able to curl up for the eight hour flight home. I have to admit I was pleased for the relative efficiency of Dubai airport compared to Beijing, and I waltzed through with my carry on, and on to the metro, in no time.

Beijing in 32 hours may seem crazy, but I’m very grateful to have the chance to visit these places, and I loved visiting the Great Wall – something I’ve always wanted to do. Why not!

IMG_3620
Matt’s photo of the Himalayas from the flight deck. Amazing!

 

 

24 hours in Abu Dhabi

After beginning Monday with a rather stressful visit to the Chinese Consulate in Dubai – the usefulness of which will be dependent on whether I get a seat on the plane to China on Saturday – Matt and I got on the public bus to Abu Dhabi. After about two hours, and only being run off the highway once, we arrived at the delightfully green Abu Dhabi central bus station. We then grabbed a cab through to our hotel, the Jumeirah Etihad Towers. As our room wasn’t quite ready, we went straight upstairs to Observation Deck 300 for a great view out over the Emirates Palace and the Abu Dhabi Presidential Palace. We also ate some delicious but hideously overpriced cake.

The hotel itself was lovely. The quality levels of a five star hotel in New Zealand and a five star hotel in the Middle East are very different. The $190NZD or so Matt kindly spent on our hotel for the night wouldn’t get much back home in central Auckland, but we had a lovely room overlooking the water, and the service at the hotel was fantastic. We spent most of the day lounging on the private beach and reading, with the serenity occasionally broken up by the sound of the nearest Mosque. We had a nice dinner at one of the hotel restaurants, and then probably spent a good twenty minutes playing with the remote controlled curtain rail and watching the Mecca channel, which was as scintillating as can be expected.

In the morning, on Suzettes advice, we got up early and drove straight to the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Taxis are cheap in Abu Dhabi – much cheaper than Dubai – and a 40 minute cab ride cost about $12NZD. I had forgotten to bring a head scarf, so dutifully lined up to obtain a brown polyester sack to wear in the Mosque. I had mistakenly assumed that the abayas would be made of the same black silk-like material I had seen others wearing. After helping a little Taiwanese lady into her own brown polyester sack, we went into the Mosque grounds, and it was pretty cool. Going early was a great idea, as we managed to beat the Chinese tour groups and had it to ourselves  most of the time. The Mosque was actually only built in 2007, and its a bizarre mix of beautiful Islamic art and design, and strange plastic chandeliers. It also has a snazzy clock inside that tells you when to pray.

We spent about an hour wandering around the site, which was starting to get busier by the time we left. We grabbed a cab back toward the hotel, and visited the Emirates Palace, the fanciest hotel in Abu Dhabi. After our disappointment at not being able to locate the gold vending machine, we decided to have tea and cake at one of its cafes – although we did pass on the gold flake camelcinos and the $1,100 cake on offer. I also consumed the most expensive tea I will ever drink.

IMG_3141
And it took so long with that tiny glass.

One thing I really like about most places we visit in the Middle East is the fact that everyone assumes you are rich. We are not rich. But you get treated as if you are anyway. When we were waiting to check in at our hotel, someone bought us over lemon mint drinks and hot towels to refresh ourselves. Although this did make me wonder how bad I looked after a two hour bus journey, I had to appreciate the gesture. People in hospitality generally treat you very well – and its a nice touch, something you don’t tend to find at home.

We lounged on the beach for a few more hours after checking out, and then it was back on the bus (25AED each way!) to Dubai, and the metro back to our apartment. It was a nice little break away, and we hope to be able to visit another Emirate soon.